Middle Schoolers Look Both Ways for the 2021 All Middle School Read
Award-winning author Jason Reynolds, appointed National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress, has an unmistakable writer's voice. He speaks to young adults through the triumphs and struggles of his characters, capturing the attention of even the most reluctant readers. For our second annual All Middle School Read, our teachers and students read his 2019 novel Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks. To bring this experience even closer to home for our students, Mr. Reynolds visited Severn to talk about his life, his writing process, and of course, his books.
Different Lives, Common Ground
National Book Award finalist Look Both Ways is a series of loosely related short stories that offer different perspectives on what happens when the school day ends and students make their way home. Although the characters from each chapter attend the same school and make cameo appearances throughout, they have vastly different life experiences. Through those experiences, the book explores some intensely emotional topics like bullying, homophobia, the death of a sibling, terminal illness, and more.
"We started by thinking about our dream author visit and Jason Reynolds was at the top of the list; he’s a superstar in young people’s literature. After hearing him speak at a couple of virtual conferences last year, reading his books, and watching some videos of presentations, we knew he would be able to connect with our kids and be an inspiring voice for them. We chose Look Both Ways because we felt all of our kids could see themselves or their friends somewhere in the book, since it is formatted as ten different short stories with a large cast of characters. The book also provides great fodder for discussion about empathy, friendship, and standing up for what’s right." — Library Director Ms. Whitney Etchison
Everyone Has a Story
Beginning the school year with the All Middle School Read creates an early touch point for the whole community to come together through a shared experience. With Ms. Etchison and Advisory Coordinator Ms. Laura Steppe leading the way, our middle schoolers met several times to talk about the book after reading it over the summer. The goal of this year's program was to highlight the value of empathy and encourage students to consider the many unique experiences they and their peers bring to school. During the first meetings with their advisory groups, they discussed questions like:
What effect does giving or receiving empathy have on various characters?
Have you made incorrect assumptions about other people based on their appearance? Why is it important to try to fully understand an entire story before forming opinions or making decisions?
Consider something in the Severn community that you think needs changing. Why does it need to be changed? How would you make it different? How will your changes improve the community?
Every Story Connects Us
The initial discussions were important for students to make meaningful connections between the characters and themes from the book and their own lives. The next set of activities deepened those connections as students prepared for the author's visit, explored each other's stories, and further developed their ideas to improve the Severn community. Ms. Etchison and Ms. Steppe organized these activities among mixed grade-level groups to help students develop a sense of belonging and understanding of others outside of their more familiar circles, particularly for students new to Teel Campus. Activities included:
A brainstorm activity to prepare questions for the author during his visit
One-on-one interviews with questions designed to encourage students to share their stories
A discussion of what a "Town Hall" is along with a brainstorm of questions students might like to explore in a "Town Hall" setting at Severn
Leaning Into the Human Experience
Finally, the day of the author visit arrived, and after digging into Look Both Ways, our middle schoolers were eager to hear Mr. Reynolds speak in person. He related to the kids with the same mix of comedy, emotion, and down-to-earth humanity readers can find in the pages of his books. During the Q&A portion of his presentation, Mr. Reynolds shared his inspiration for the chapter "Call of Duty," which explores homophobia, bullying, and allyship.
"I think that there are certain conversations that we all tiptoe around, but every time I've had these conversations with people your age, it goes so well. So I wonder if there's a way for us to broach these complicated topics that honestly really shouldn't be all that complicated; lean into them and figure out how to build some sort of human experience.
We write stories about people in the LGBTQ+ community but we never talk about what it means to be an ally to that community — which is part of our community. I wanted to figure out how to write about the young person who stands up and says, 'No, I'm not going to be afraid. I'm going to stand up for the person I claim to be a friend of and deal with whatever comes.' Whether it's about the LGBTQ community, or it's about race or about gender, at some point all of us need to figure out, are you a coward or are you not? Are you a mountain or are you a mouse? I wanted to show what that looks like, and it may come with consequences, but that's a consequence that I'm willing to take. And I hope you are too." — Jason Reynolds
This author visit was made possible by a generous donation to the Middle School Author Series Fund. Our community is grateful that this funding allowed our students to have such a unique and engaging experience and hope to support more author visits in the future. For more information about the fund and how to support student programs at Severn, please email Director of Major Gifts Maryetta Lynch.